on writing genderqueer characters

This post was originally written for the writer’s community getyourwordsout in 2018. This is the revised and abbreviated edition.

In this post, I am going to give you an overview of how genderqueer characters can be written in (English-language) fantasy by providing excerpts from a selection of published books, and also by talking a lot. I’ve divided it into four sections:
1. Pronouns
2. Physical descriptions
3. Cultural set up
4. Writing genderqueer characters

I’m putting emphasis on English because English is for me a foreign language. I’m Danish-Icelandic, Master of Arts in Finnish, and English is my 6th language. I’m also a trans nonbinary person, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns in English, but not in my own languages because I don’t like the options for nonbinary pronouns in them. I like Finnish a lot because Finnish doesn’t have grammatical genders and everyone is just hän. I’m mentioning this because there’s a semi-linguistic slant to aspects of this post informed by my background.

Throughout this post I’ll be using the word genderqueer as an umbrella term. Non-binary, genderfluid, agender, bigender, pangender, demi-boy, demi-girl, etc, all fit under here. Transgender also fits under this umbrella, but for the purpose of this post I’ll be focusing on genderqueer characters who aren’t transgender (though of course, overlaps may occur).

Please note that I will not be talking about hurtful vs respectful ways to write genderqueer characters. For the purpose of this post, I’m assuming we’re all past that and will be going straight to the craft aspect of writing genderqueer characters.

Onwards!

1. Pronouns

In English, which has gendered pronouns (he, she, they), expressing a different gender, a lack of gender, a fluid gender, etc. is heavily based on pronouns as they are often the first, or one of the first, gender markers one encounters when characters are introduced on the page. Pronouns are also the most prominent gender marker as they appear on every page, multiple times. Invisible in use, conspicuous by absence.

“I see…” said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window. For a long time he stood there against the dim light from Divisadero Street and the passing beams of traffic.

These two sentences are the opening lines of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (feel free to judge me). Before we even know this character’s name (revealed on page 25), we know his gender, because the pronouns alert us to it. Rice could’ve chosen to continually refer to Louis as the vampire, but she wasn’t trying to hide his gender, make the reader question his gender, or set his gender up to be something else, so she didn’t.

Pick any book from your shelf and open it, and I can guarantee that for the most part, the protagonist’s gender is revealed before their name. Writers like to hold the name back for a bit, make the reader curious. Who is this person? We don’t know, but we sure do know their gender.

When it comes to genderqueer characters, the pronouns they/them/their are commonly used, but neopronouns such as ey/em/eir, xie/xem/xir or per/per/pers (and many more) can also be used. So, in an English speaking setting, a genderqueer person or character might use the already existing gender neutral they-pronouns or any one of the neopronouns. A genderqueer person or character may also use gendered pronouns, several different pronouns, or patchwork of different expressions (for example, in English I use both she/her and they/them pronouns, while also referring to myself as both “this gal” and “this guy”).

Here’s an example of the use of they-pronouns:

“Why do you say that?” they said, refusing to sit up from the bed.

This line is from JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven, which I’ll talk more about in #3.

Establishing a character’s genderqueer identity through the use of pronouns is standard, if only because the pronouns are so massively important in English. Using they-pronouns or neopronouns in place of gendered pronouns is just as valid as using the binary male or female pronouns. There is also no requirement to use neo-pronouns or they-pronouns for a genderqueer character, which will be illustrated in the next section.

2. Physical descriptions

Assuming a modern, western, English speaking setting, physical description can go a long way. Western culture is overwhelmingly heteronormative and gender conforming, so a way for genderqueer people to break out of the male-female binary is to mix and match gender-coded clothing, intentionally strive towards an androgynous look, and if applicable, wear badges/flags/similar that indicate queerness and/or a different gender. This is easy to do in contemporary fiction, because it’s the same as the world we already live in—it’s projected onto the page directly from our lived experience. It is, however, also useful when writing fantasy and science fiction, and in particular if the fictional world doesn’t have words for queerness, or if the characters don’t use gender neutral pronouns or neopronouns.

So, let’s get right to it. How do you describe a genderqueer character who lives in a world that aligns with our western one, and doesn’t use gender neutral pronouns or neopronuns?

“Half past nine,” she murmured deeply, tucking the watch into the vest pocket under her cloak, careful not to let the constable catch sight of the various weapons glittering beneath it. Lila was tall and thin, with a boyish frame that helped her pass for a young man, but only from a distance. Too close an inspection, and the illusion would crumble.

This excerpt is from Lila Bard’s first introduction in V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. Lila is word-of-god genderfluid (neither she nor the other characters use that word for her), and is portrayed on the page with descriptions like these. She’s a character who consistently favours male cut clothing over pretty much anything female.

“Are you certain you wouldn’t prefer something with a corset? Or a train?”

Calla had tried to lead Lila to a rack of dresses, but her eyes had gone straight to the men’s coats. Glorious things, with strong shoulders and high collars and gleaming buttons.

“No,” said Lila, lifting one from the rack. “This is exactly what I want.”

Later in the same chapter:

She looked little like the shadow of a thief on the WANTED posters back home, and nothing like the scrawny girl hoarding coppers to escape a dingy life. Her polished boots glistened from knee to toe, lengthening her legs. Her coat broadened her shoulders and hugged her waist. And her mask tapered down her cheeks, the black horns curling up over her head in a way that was at once elegant and monstrous. She gave herself a long, appraising look, the way the girl in the street had, but there was nothing to scoff at now.

Delilah Bard looked like a king.

Lila is also frequently described by other characters as being tall and boyish, slim, rakish, and physically strong. She has sharp angles, a sharp jaw, short, sharply cut hair. While not all of the words used to describe Lila can be said to be male coded, female coded descriptors are almost never applied to her.

Note: If Schwab hadn’t confirmed Lila to be genderfluid on twitter, I’d have never known because I don’t read her as genderfluid from the text. I couldn’t find a whole lot of examples in the text to back up this reading, either. Other readers obviously had a different experience (and that is legit), but what I want to say is:if you intend for your character to be genderqueer and to be consistently read that way, it has to be textual, and it has to be clear.

Continuing in a similar vein, the next example is of a character who’s word-of-god agender, but his genderqueerness is more prominent in the text than Lila Bard’s.

“I suppose they must have an awful lot of trouble with assassination,” Caius went on. He was dressed half like a woman and half like a lunatic, breezing through the halls behind our lamp-bearer, the fabric of whatever it was he was wearing swishing all the way.

Excerpt from Shadow Magic by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. Caius Greylace doesn’t seem concerned with gender expression, but clearly behaves in a way that rejects the binary.

Caius Greylace, fresh out of a bath and smelling like roses, was standing in the open space;

Caius, who was wearing what looked like some kind of red bow in his hair.

“It’s a local hair ornament,” Caius said.

He was delicate enough that he reminded me a little of Greylace

“Ah, fresh air,” Caius said, standing next to me and breathing in deeply before letting out a fluttery little sigh. I’d heard women make that kind of noise.

He is described using female coded traits—smelling like roses, wearing female-coded clothing, making female-perceived noises—and is on occasion explicitly compared to women. Quite often Caius actually casts himself in the female role, as in this excerpt from his own POV:

“This is rather like a game,” I murmured happily to Alcibiades, who was looking increasingly like one of the bored husbands you saw in the Volstov shopping district, dragged by their wives from hat shop to dress shop to hat shop again. He’d even given up trying to shake me off his arm.

Caius affords attention to his clothing to a degree that is often only exhibited by female characters:

This outfit was a new one, and not entirely as flattering as it might have been. I was going to call the Ke-Han tailors soon, in any case.

He is small, delicate, fluttering, fanciful, has a tinkling laugh, etc. etc. There’s no end to the female coded descriptor for him.

Now, what both Lila and Caius have in common is that they a) use gendered pronouns that match their assigned gender, b) look to the other end of the binary gender spectrum to express themselves and be comfortable in their own skin and c) aren’t afforded the agency to actually put in their own words that they’re genderqueer. It’s left to the reader to interpret their gender (or lack thereof), and the authors to confirm it after the fact.

I might seem overly critical of this approach, but actually: When writing fantasy that adheres to our western binary principles, this is a very useful way to establish a character’s genderqueerness since this is something many readers are already familiar with from both their own lives and from other works of fiction. If the characters are operating in a binary, stepping outside of the binary inevitably involves appropriating traits from the other end of the spectrum. Having a binary setup isn’t inherently bad, it just means that having characters in that set up that don’t fit that binary will require some extra work.

We’ll talk more about this in #3.

I’ll give you a third example of a character who’s also word-of-god genderfluid, but who actually affords this conscious thought on the page even though the actual word isn’t used in the text. This is an example of how it’s not always necessary to use our real-life queer vocabulary in order to get the idea across explicitly:

In fact, she gave me precisely everything I did not ask for. The best tailored dresses, fine powders and rouges appropriate for my age, delicate porcelain dolls from Imachara, fancy stationery, sewing and knitting lessons. (…) I wanted to learn to fence and shoot.

The act [of being young noblewomen] was like the dresses—I’ll-fitting and not quite right.

“For the one hundredth thousandth time—I’m Gene,” I said, as I always did. (…) I beamed at Oswin. He had called me Gene.

Micah from Laura Lam’s YA fantasy book Pantomime is assigned female at birth and has struggled with it his whole life. The book is from two POV’s: Micah in the present and Gene in the past, Gene being the masculine version of Micah’s nickname before he started using the name Micah. As you can see from the excerpts above, Micah consciously gives his gender identity and expression thought, so the reader is aware that he isn’t comfortable with his assigned gender and expected gender expression.

I thought of my attraction to Aenea. Did I like her as a boy or as a girl?

I was both male and female in a world where it seemed you had to be one or the other.

I think it’s important to add here that Micah is also intersex, which overlaps with his struggle to find his gender identity, as Micah (in the first book) subscribes to his society’s views of gender as something that aligns with sex. I mentioned that he’s word-of-god genderfluid, I say this specifically because my reading of the text is that Micah is transgender. (Of course, any reading is legit, the author is dead, etc.)

The cultural set up in the Micah Gray trilogy is a society which is western-inspired (similar to Victorian UK) and thus does not accept deviations from the established gender binary or heteronormativity:

“What is your biggest fear?” He asked.

I was quiet, thinking. There were so many things I was frightened of. “Not being accepted or loved for what—who—I am.”

This is likely a contributing factor to why in Micah’s world the vocabulary for queerness is limited (though not non-existent). Going back to Lila’s and Caius’ worlds for a second; in Lila’s setting (Red London) homosexuality/bisexuality appears to be generally accepted, but doesn’t have a word, and there plain isn’t any vocabulary for genderqueerness for Lila or other characters to use. In Caius’ world (Volstov) the countryside is less tolerant of deviant sexualities and gender expressions while in the city it seems accepted enough, however there is again a distinct lack of vocabulary, and what vocabulary there is (for homosexuality) consists mostly of in-world slurs.

This brings us to our next topic.

3. Cultural set up
(Worldbuilding. I mean worldbuilding.)

We get to talk about The Black Tides of Heaven now! We also now get to the most crucial part of this post. The excerpts in the previous section were western fantasy written by queer white western women (except Anne Rice), so the physical expressions of genderqueerness relied on western binary gender coding, because the basis for creating those settings was a western cultural mindset. The ADSOM trilogy is literally set in fantasy London while the Volstovic Cycle series in general is set in Not!Russia-cum-France, and the Micah Gray trilogy is set in Not!Victorian UK. All three examples take place in some nebulous Regency-Victorian “time period”, despite being fantasy in made up worlds, and our western attitudes towards gender (and sexuality) carry over.

Which is to say, the cultural set up of the story informs everything else. The cultural set up informs the physical descriptions, as they are inevitably rooted in culture and language—the pronouns and other vocabulary included.

So when you want to write a genderqueer character in your fantasy novel, that’s where you have to start. What is your cultural set up like? How is gender treated and described not just for the genderqueer character, but for everyone else as well? How do cultural attitudes and traditions inform this world view, and why? How does it affect your characters, genderqueer and cisgender characters alike? How does the language in your cultural set up reflect gender? Which vocabulary do your characters have at their disposal?

So, if you’re writing a fantasy set in a world that mimics the western world we already live in, I hope that by now you’ve got some idea of which approaches you can use to convey your character’s genderqueerness.

If you’re looking to do something else, let’s have a look at how JY Yang (Singaporean, queer) went about making genderqueerness an integral part of the cultural set up instead of something that is tacked onto an existing structure of traditions, values and attitudes.

The Tensorate series has a cultural set up which is wholly different from the more common western set up: To begin with, the series is fantasy set in Not!Asia instead of Not!Europe. The cultural set-up inThe Black Tides of Heaven is that everyone is born without a gender and is referred to by they/them pronouns. One can confirm their gender at age 3, 6 or 16, or never. In practice, one can still confirm their gender past 16, these are just the traditional ages to do it. (I may have gotten the ages wrong, bear with me. The point still stands.) In this set up, using gender neutral pronouns and not having a confirmed gender is not queer to the setting. It is expected to confirm one’s gender eventually, so it’s my understanding that not confirming one’s gender is a way to be genderqueer in this set up.

There are very few physical descriptions that indicate gender:

Sonami had just turned fifteen, yet still wore the genderfree tunic of a child, their hair cropped to a small square at the top of their head and gathered into a bun.

Genderfree is such an amazing word, isn’t it? When not having a gender isn’t deviant from the norm, it also isn’t queer, so it makes sense that the vocabulary reflects this. Genderfree means just that: free from gender. It’s normalised. A natural part of the culture.

The use of gender neutral pronouns changes when a character confirms their gender, or, as in this example, a character realises what their gender is:

Slowly, as if stepping into the unilluminated edge of a lake, Akeha switched to using masculine pronouns.

I am. I want. I will.

Their heart quickened in their chest. The words rolled and clicked in their mind, sharp and electric.

(…)

Fear and excitement seized them in equal parts. I should tell Mother, they thought. He thought.

The sex of the body is irrelevant to the gender and is never revealed; gender is expressed through pronoun use, gender coded clothing, and gender coded hair styles. Medicine that prevents the body from changing is administered to genderfree children, and it’s heavily implied that in order to “undo” that, one has to actively choose to take confirmation medicine.

His body ached. His reshaped hips felt loose where the confirmation doctors had shifted bone, and soreness coiled in flesh both old and new. The doctors had assured him that the discomfort was normal, part of his body learning to speak the new language it had been taught. In time it would forget it had known anything else. In time, he too would forget what it felt like not to have this body, not to have had this life.

Another way to be genderqueer in this cultural set up, that isn’t staying genderfree/unconfirmed, is to confirm one’s gender, but not undergo medical confirmation:

“My confirmation, I didn’t…I didn’t get confirmed.” As Akeha’s frown deepened, he said, “I mean, I got confirmed, but I didn’t go to the doctors. Some—”

“I don’t care,” Akeha said.

This is just one example of a cultural set up that allows for some specific-to-that-world genderqueerness that has no relation to our western world views; it isn’t queer to be genderfree unless one stays genderfree past childhood, and it is queer to be confirmed in gender but not body. Even so, those forms of queerness appear to be normal and standard for the way of living in that cultural set up (as is homosexuality), so we could actually make the argument that this cultural set up isn’t queer at all. However, because this book exists in our euro-centric and cisheteronormative world, it is absolutely queer. Unapologetically queer.

I’d venture to say that The Age of the Unapologetic Queer is now, and that making queerness explicit on the page should be standard. (Don’t make your fans do the work for you.)

To circle this back to pronoun use: using they pronouns in English as genderfree markers on the page also works smoothly because the fantasy language in JY Yang’s set up has gendered pronouns. This is shown in the text like so:

Akeha switched to using masculine pronouns.

Mokoya had slipped and used the feminine “I” pronoun.

So it is clear that the use of the English they isn’t just for the sake of the Western readers that may pick this book up, it’s an inherent part of the cultural set up.

Language informs the cultural set up and vice versa. Leaving the pronouns and The Black Tides of Heaven aside for a bit, consider all the different ways in which language can reflect the world building in your cultural set up. Genderfree is a good example of a piece of vocabulary that fulfills a specific need, but what about other areas? Honorifics? Professions? Think about how English does it: actor vs actress, male nurse vs nurse, king vs queen.

Does the language of your set up reflect English cultural traditions, or does it reflect the traditions and values of your cultural set up?

4. Writing genderqueer characters

So, you have one or more genderqueer characters in your novel. Maybe your novel is set in a western-inspired world. Or perhaps a non-western inspired world. Whichever it is, you’ve probably tweaked it. Or maybe you don’t have any of those things, and are reading this for inspiration.

A while ago I was struggling with how to portray a genderfluid character in a fantasy WIP, so let’s use that as a case study:

The cultural set up in my WIP is inspired by northern Scandinavia, but queerer. The culture this character is from is historically matriarchal, and the language only has gender neutral pronouns (just like modern Finnish and Sápmi languages). That same culture uses ranks and gender suffixes to convey gender, i.e. a person may have both a rank and a profession with their gender suffix (no suffix means no gender), or if they rank highly enough, they may have a female gendered rank (no suffix as the word itself is gendered (and ancient)) regardless of their actual gender. I have several ways of conveying this quirk of the language, such as: He was the kind of man who put his gender suffix on everything he could possibly tack it onto, even if it wasn’t required by standard grammar.

On to the problem: By using the pronouns they/them for my nonbinary character I felt like I was singling them out as something ~special when fact was that everyone uses gender neutral pronouns because that’s how the language and the culture is set up. I didn’t want to use either he or she for this character either, as I felt that would give something away about their body that isn’t relevant for anyone to know and which might make readers biased towards them in one way or other.

What I wanted was to avoid clumsy infodump phrases that broke the reader’s immersion, such as a POV character (POV character is from culture #2) remarking on pronouns for no good reason at all. Unlike the Tensorate set up, I don’t have gendered pronouns that can ‘match’ the English pronouns, because there is only the one gender neutral pronoun for everyone.

I thought about the following solutions:

  • Having somebody ask another character, who’s bilingual, how they’d refer to the nonbinary character in their other language (clumsy)
  • Not use any pronouns at all and refer to the nonbinary character only by name (pronoun conspicuous by absence)
  • Use they pronouns for everyone (I quickly dismissed that idea)
  • Use “neopronouns” for that character derived from the language I’m using as inspiration (also clumsy)
  • Change the set up and have gendered pronouns so I can just use they (not a fan of this idea)

One very telling thing I didn’t think of at first was that I had no problems using gendered pronouns for everyone else, i.e. my female and male characters, even though they should’ve been using gender neutral pronouns as well if I applied the same rules to them as I was applying to my nonbinary character. So once I realised I was being a douche and that my aversion to the gender neutral pronouns for that one nonbinary character was the result of internalised prejudice, the solution became: use they/them pronouns for them and stop whining.

Ahem.

JY Yang managed to scrub western patriarchal (and English) cultural baggage out of their language use in The Black Tides of Heaven, without reinventing the English language, so there’s literally no excuse for anyone else trying to do the same thing.

The other thing I did to fix this: I changed the language spoken between the POV character and the bilingual character early on in the novel, when they discuss the nonbinary character (Áillun) for a thieving job. By having them speak a language with gendered pronouns I could add the information about the cultural set up and the cultural differences between the two cultures in just two lines:

Fjalarr turned the machine on, which instantly started gurgling. He then took care to close the coffee tin and replace it in the cupboard before he spoke again. “Why didn’t you get Áillun?”

“We already have…that?” Ilmari frowned. His Skerlenzka was rustier than he’d thought, and he’d never really gotten the hang of all the different pronouns and grammatical genders to begin with. “We already have Áillun,” he said instead.

“Them,” Fjalarr corrected. “That is for masculine things, they is for agender people.”

As a bonus, the language change modified the character dynamic in the scene and improved it overall. (Not that the whole thing doesn’t still need some serious editing, but you know. Baby steps.)

Some questions to ask yourself when writing genderqueer characters:

  • Am I being a douche?
  • Which pronouns exist in my cultural set up, and why? Why not?
  • Which forms of gender expressions exist, and how does my character relate to them? How do other characters relate to them?
  • Does my choice of words accurately reflect my intentions?

To finish off with a flourish, I’m going to give you one last example of how to go about talking about pronouns in English-language fiction:

Abdo gave me the expected fish-eye, but for an unexpected reason: Wrong gender. You use cosmic neuter for a stranger.

I glanced at Rodya; he leaned to one side and spat on the ground. He’s not a stranger anymore. If anyone embodied naive masculine, surely Rodya—

You use cosmic neuter for a stranger, Abdo insisted. And he’s a stranger until you’ve asked, “How may I pronoun you?”

But you told me cosmic neuter was the gender of gods and eggplant, I protested, unsure why I was arguing with a native speaker about his own language.

People may choose it, said Abdo. But it’s polite for strangers. You may be almost sure he’s not an eggplant, but he might still be some agent of the gods.

This exchange tells you so much about the cultural set up, doesn’t it? The excerpt is from Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. The language in question has six genders, including, (iirc) two masculine genders and two female genders.

Books cited in this post:

Bennett & Jones; Shadow Magic (Volstovic Cycle #2)

Hartman, Rachel; Shadow Scale (Seraphina #2)

Lam, Laura; Pantomime (Micah Gray #1)

Rice, Anne; Interview with the Vampire

Schwab, V.E.; A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1)

Yang, JY; The Black Tides of Heaven (Tensorate #1)

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